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The Chronicles of Reggae
Aura Lewis (born Aurelia ‘Aura’ Grace Msimang on March 4, 1947) was a South African singer who worked with Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff and recorded an album with Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry in the late 1970s.
Early Life and Career
Aura was born Aurelia Msimang in Western Native Township, Johannesburg, South Africa. After growing up in Johannesburg, she moved to the United States in the early 1970s and enrolled at New York’s Hunter College. She married a jazz musician and became known as Aura Lewis.
It was in 1972 when she became interested in reggae after seeing The Wailers perform at Max’s Kansas City, a nightclub and restaurant at 213 Park Avenue South, in New York City, which became a gathering spot for musicians, poets, artists and politicians in the 1960s and 1970s. Aura moved to Jamaica in 1976 where she enrolled in the Drama department of the Jamaica School of Arts, and began working with Cedric Brooks in the group United Africa. She was introduced to Jimmy Cliff, who asked her to join him on his 1977 West African tour as a backing vocalist, the tour filmed and released on video as Bongo Man. Cliff’s band stopped off in London before returning to Jamaica, where she was taken to Island Records by Cliff, while Lee Perry and Bob Marley were working on ‘Punky Reggae Party’ (released on Bob Marley & the Wailers’ ‘Exodus’ album). Perry was looking for an additional backing vocalist and asked Lewis to contribute to the recording, joining Candy MacKenzie.
Back in Jamaica, Lewis became a regular backing vocalist for Perry at his Black Ark studio, and began working on a group project called ‘Full Experience’, along with another Black Ark session singer, Pamela Reed. Perry agreed to produce an album by the group, and drafted in Candy MacKenzie to make the group up to a trio. They recorded eleven tracks in 1978 with a backing band including Mikey ‘Boo’ Richards, Winston Wright, Geoffrey Chung, Michael Chung, and Sticky, including a version of Nina Simone’s ‘Young Gifted and Black’, retitled ‘Young, Gifted and Broke’, and the track ‘Full Experience’ (originally called ‘Stricly Roots’), which featured Boris Gardiner on bass guitar.
The tracks recorded also featured versions of the Swahili songs ‘Malaika’ and ‘Haposamane’. The album was never issued in Jamaica, amid tensions between band members. Eventually, Lewis was able to obtain a tape containing five tracks from the sessions and these were licensed to the French Blue Moon label, and released in 1990. The album sleeve features an image of Lewis superimposed on a photograph of the outside of the Black Ark studio. ‘Full Experience’ was included on the album Baffling Smoke Signal: The Upsetter Shop Volume 3 in 2002.
A wanderer and an activist, Aura Lewis eventually settled in Johannesburg where she was part of the Founding Members of the recently formed ‘Reggae Promoters Association’ RPA (SA). She also became heavily involved in different youth projects. On November 30, 2015, an email subscription arrived in our inbox. It was from Aura. She had written a beautiful introduction and also thanked us for the magazine and for giving reggae a positive voice.
In the early morning hours of Christmas (2015), Aura suffered a stroke. She unexpectedly passed away on December 28, 2015.
As we celebrate Women’s History Month, we ask that you join us in keeping Aura Lewis in your hearts. We will miss you, Aura! We dedicate this issue of IRIE Magazine in your loving memory.